What is syphilis?
Syphilis is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum that is mainly transmitted through sexual contact. People can get it without knowing they have it. It is curable, but it can cause serious health problems if you don’t get it treated.
Syphilis is very common. You can minimize your risk by practicing safe sex and knowing how the illness is passed between people. It is essential to understand the symptoms of this sexually transmitted infection (STI) so that you can see a doctor for treatment and avoid passing it to other people.
Learn more about syphilis, what it looks like, and how to treat and prevent it.
Signs and symptoms of syphilis
Syphilis has four different stages, and each stage has different symptoms.
The phases of syphilis are:
- Primary Stage. The first sign of syphilis is a sore, called a chancre, on your genitals, anus, or mouth. It appears at the spot where the syphilis bacteria entered your body. The sores are painless and may go unnoticed. They usually heal on their own within three to six weeks, but you should seek treatment to prevent the infection from moving to the next stage.
- Secondary Stage. In the secondary phase of syphilis, you will develop a rash. The rash won’t necessarily be in the same place as your original sore, though it can be. It commonly shows up on your hands and feet, where it can easily be mistaken for something other than an STI. The rash is usually reddish or brownish and doesn’t cause itching. You may also develop a fever, body aches, headaches, or fatigue during this phase. Though the symptoms will clear up on their own, you should still seek treatment.
- Latent Stage. Even after the sores and other symptoms go away, the bacteria hasn’t left your body. It just goes into a latent stage where you have no symptoms at all. It can live in your body for years without treatment.
- Tertiary Stage. If you don’t treat syphilis in one of the early stages, it becomes a serious health problem. In its tertiary stage, the bacteria can affect any organ in the body, including your brain. It can cause organ failure and death.
Causes of syphilis
Syphilis is caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. It passes from person to person by contact with the sores from primary stage syphilis. Typically, this happens during unprotected sexual contact.
Pregnant women can pass sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis to their unborn babies, which can cause a miscarriage, low birth weight, or other serious health problems for the baby. Syphilis treatment is safe during pregnancy.
You can prevent syphilis by avoiding sexual contact with affected partners. Using condoms during sex can reduce your risk of syphilis. However, if a syphilis sore is in a place that the condom doesn’t cover, you can still transmit the bacteria.
Latest Sexual Health News
Daily Health News
When to see the doctor for syphilis
Because syphilis will not go away without treatment, you need to see a doctor if you suspect you have it. If you think you have been exposed to syphilis or you have symptoms, call your doctor to get tested. Make sure to see a doctor if your partner is undergoing treatment for syphilis.
In most cases, syphilis can be detected with a simple blood test. Your doctor may also take a sample from any sores you have and examine them under a microscope to look for syphilis bacteria.
If your doctor is worried that you have tertiary syphilis, they may do more extensive tests. If they think that syphilis has affected your brain or nervous system, they may test your cerebral spinal fluid via a lumbar puncture, or spinal tap. This test requires a needle in your spine to draw out the fluid for testing.
All pregnant women should have a syphilis test at least once during their pregnancy.
Treatments for syphilis
Syphilis responds well to antibiotics, so treatment is easy and effective most of the time. If you have had syphilis for less than a year, you will only need one dose. Your doctor will give you a shot of penicillin, which is usually enough to clear it up.
If you were exposed more than a year ago or are unsure how long ago it happened, you will need three shots over three weeks.
People who are allergic to penicillin can take an alternate antibiotic.
Pregnant women can be safely treated with penicillin as well. If you are pregnant and allergic to penicillin, discuss it with your doctor. They can choose a treatment plan that will be safe for you.
You can get syphilis more than once. You should call your doctor if you suspect you were exposed or have symptoms, even if you were successfully treated before.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Syphilis & MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men) - CDC Fact Sheet."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Syphilis: The Facts."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Syphilis Treatment and Care."
Harvard Health: "Syphilis."
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Syphilis."
Top How Do You Get Syphilis and What Does It Look Like Related Articles
How Long Does It Take To Treat and Cure Syphilis?Learn what medical treatments can help you treat syphilis and how long it takes to treat the infection to speed up your recovery.
Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) TreatmentsIf you are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD), you must take and observe the following precautions.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Women (STDs)Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are among the most common infectious diseases in the United States. STDs can be spread through any type of sexual activity involving the sex organs, the anus or mouth, or through contact with blood during sexual activity. Examples of STDs include, chancroid, chlamydia, gonorrhea, granuloma inguinale, lymphogranuloma venereum, syphilis, genital herpes, genital warts, trichomoniasis, pubic lice (crabs), and scabies. Treatment is generally with antibiotics; however, some STDs that go untreated can lead to death.
STD QuizThere are more sexually transmitted diseases than just the ones you've heard of. Find out what you've been missing with the STD Quiz.
STD Symptoms for WomenMany women may not show any symptoms of STDs and may be unaware of the need for treatment. Women experiencing problems must seek gynecological advice.
STDs in MenSexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections transmitted during sexual contact. They may be caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites. STDs in men cause no symptoms or symptoms like genital burning, itching, sores, rashes, or discharge. Common infections that are sexually transmitted in men include gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, hepatitis C and B, genital warts, human papillomavirus (HPV), and genital herpes. Some STDs in men are treatable while others are not. STDs are diagnosed with tests that identify proteins or genetic material of the organisms causing the infection. The prognosis of an STD depends on whether the infection is treatable or not. Use of latex condoms can help reduce the risk of contracting an STD but it does not eliminate the risk entirely.
STDs Facts SlideshowSexually transmitted infections like chlamydia and genital herpes are common STDs. Think you might have an STD? You’re not alone. Find pictures of herpes, gonorrhea, and more. Learn how venereal disease can harm your health, and how to tell your partner if you have an STD.
STDs: Common SymptomsSexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are diseases that a person can get by having sex with someone who has an STD.
Syphilis in WomenSyphilis is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a spiral-shaped type of bacteria known as a spirochete. There are three stages of syphilis with distinct symptoms. During first stage of syphilis, a painless ulcer known as a chancre forms. Irreversible organ damage can occur during the late stage of syphilis. Special blood tests are used to diagnose syphilis. Syphilis infection is treated with penicillin. Condom use can often prevent syphilis.
Syphilis PictureA sexually transmitted disease caused by Treponema pallidum, a microscopic organism called a spirochete. See a picture of Syphilis and learn more about the health topic.
What Are STDs?Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are diseases that a person can get by having sex with someone who has an STD.
What Are the Symptoms and Signs of Syphilis?Syphilis is a bacterial infection that spreads through sexual contact. It is caused by the spirochete bacterium, Treponema pallidum. The first sign of syphilis is most commonly a painless sore, called a chancre, which develops where the bacteria enters the body.
What Are the Symptoms of STD In Females?Many women may not show any symptoms of STDs and may be unaware of the need for treatment.
What Are the Top 10 STDs?According to the American Social Health Organization, each year one out of four teens in the United States develops a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Half of all sexually active young adults get an STD by the age of 25 years.
What Happens If Syphilis Is Left Untreated?Untreated syphilis can lead to permanent damage to multiple body systems such as the brain, heart, and eyes and result in life-threatening complications.